Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Humbly Submit....

I finished my first novel yesterday.

There I sat, in east Bali, at the mercy of a mobile phone connection to the internet, antenna atop a bamboo pole, voltage stabilizer on the computer... I held my breath. I was to upload a 550 K document to a location in uber-wired Hong Kong.

Not thirty feet away from this 21st century setup is the bamboo and palm frond hut of one farmer named Nengah Sukarsa, who keeps ten chickens and a quarter acre of beans and corn (in rotation), who each night plays a lovely Balinese chorus of drums and flute, depending on who shows up at his shack for a jam session. His lovely performance, on cue at sunset, definitely keeps things in perspective for me.

Yet I was able to upload my novel and rest assured that I am in the running for a great honor... the Man Asia Literary Prize.

Many thanks to my husband Jay, my writer pals Nury Vittachi and Jane Camens, and everyone who cooks my food and pulls my weeds and washes my dishes (Komang, Cedok, Gede and Gunung).

Monday, March 26, 2007

There's a REASON why I'm not posting

The Swimmer is in Writer Mode. You know, hunched over keyboard, coffee cup cooling off in left field, breaks for chocolate and sleep.

Here in Seraya Barat, I also have Al Jazeera TV blaring off in the next room. Al Jazeera refreshingly does not believe in sound bytes. The network goes into great depth on each story. When the news gets too depressing (usually it's amazingly informative, with plenty of air time to satirical bloggers and hardworking writers and bushbashers of all kinds), I change to something mindless like a tour of Madonna's Castillo del Lago house, apparently worthy of a half hour show on the Discovery Travel & Living Channel. And the other thing I get are tropical storms outside, interrupted by breezes and the sound of crashing surf.

But, yeah, I'm trying to finish that novel. You know, the one I've been using as an excuse for the last 3 years?

"I can't go to the movies, I'm doing that novel."

"I can't go snorkeling, I'm on a tear with the novel right now."

"Haven't picked up a paintbrush since the novel started."

etc etc

But having been at the book fest in Honkers, seeing all my old pals, I am inspired to finish it at last. I actually qualify, with my HK permanent residency, for a shot at the new Man Booker Asia Prize, so I will enter it electronically in a few days' time. My goal is to make the long list, but I don't mind winning.

So THAT's why I don't talk to anybody, don't post anything, don't go snorkeling.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I salute Osman Chowdhury,0,307100.story?coll=ny-top-headlines

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pisces Pig

Fascinating subject. Stay tuned.

Pisces Pig

I think yesterday was a pretty cool birthday. I was born in a pig year (so it will be possible for you to guess if I am 60, 48, or 36), so I am reasonably optimistic about 2007, the Fire Pig Year. This lunar year has also got some kind of rare Golden classification, according to some Chinese friend of mine, but who knows what that's supposed to mean?

In the Gregorian scheme of things, I just celebrated yesterday with a full day of festivities. Got to hear a wonderful reading from Jan Morris (her essay on the exclamation point, with which I've noticed she delightfully punctuates names of those whose books she signs). Also reading was David Tang, the mogul who is so intriguingly full of style and taste, occupies a couple of amazing pieces of Hong Kong real estate, and speaks with stimulating confidence, even when reading a tender character sketch of his grandmother.

I rushed out to hear Jason Wordie moderate a panel of interesting colonial history writers in a most interesting location. More on that when I get a chance to edit this. Fun to see that two other writers at the Festival were sharing the same birthday as me!

My husband and I waited a long time to catch a taxi up over Wong Nai Chung Gap, and I was intrigued (& admittedly disappointed) by the fact that the weather was a bit off. Breezily humid, cloudy, rainy... arguably the strangest weather ever on a birthday anniversary of mine.

When we returned to our amazingly gorgeous hotel, I found that the manager had sent up a large cheesecake with a little birthday candle and chocolate fru-fru's on top. It was rich and good, but we had committed to attend dinner at the Yellow Door with Roger and Susan and Susan and Phill. It was great fun... nouvelle Shanghai food and lots of laughs.

Ended up at the Fringe to catch the last of the poetry reading, soon followed by Dave McKirdy, Tony Lee, and Dave Calquohin with a bassist who I don't know. J jammed with them for a few numbers, including a rather nice version of Unchain my Heart. We danced together when the guys covered a song from Coldplay.

Exhausted and happy, we got back to the Mandarin and I thanked my husband's clients for being so wonderful and generous.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Religion of Kindness

Jan Morris surprised and impressed me. She sat, elevated, on an oriental rug, next to Charles Foran at Michelle Garnaut's gorgeous restaurant in the Fringe's old Dairy Farm Building. She wore a delightfully nautical striped shirt, sensible shoes, and the kind of pressed but frumpish skirt that my mom or yours would have worn on a trip to the grocery store. Morris was comfortable, at ease, and without artifice. She would laugh about memories of over-imbibing in a tavern, admit to foolish acts of innocence, and plainly tell us that our proud city, Hong Kong, "has lost its point." She has come to that blissful time in her life when she simply doesn't care what anyone else thinks of her.

She still treasures Manhatten, Trieste, and London, as silly as those three may sound spoken in the same sentence. But she sees herself in these cities, and that is what she has always done: write about herself, not simply places.

"I'm looking out, of course," she says to Foran when he pursues Morris' identity as the world's foremost travel writer. "But I'm consciously looking inward the whole time. I have a purely subjective attitude."

Oddly, Foran followed that by suggesting that Morris writes well of interactions with a city's people. What, pray tell, has he actually read by Morris? Wasn't Morris the author of the poignant and amusing tale of disconnection, Mrs. Gupta Didn't Call? Didn't Morris make us sigh in commiseration at the crazed reaction of a New York matron who she approaches for an innocent chat? Morris wanders on streets and paths, very rarely sitting down to talk to anyone.

And here we all were, the well-heeled and fashionable of Hong Kong, having shelled out the equivalent of $75 US, to drink Michelle's delectable Heidsieck champagne and swallow delicate little blintzes topped with bubbly caviar and creamy cream, hanging on every word from our favorite little old lady of letters.

"All life is allegory," she tells us. "Nothing is only as it seems. There's more to you than I see."

And, indeed, more to her than we see. But we must wait for her to leave before all is revealed.

"I am working on my posthumous book, to be published after I kick the bucket. It will be called Allegorizings." (Oh, gosh, yesterday I thought she'd called it Allegorizons)! She says simply that there are personal things which she doesn't want in the public domain just now.

She concedes that there are a few things which are exactly what they seem. "Nothing straightforward, nothing is simple, except for the great things in life." Kindness, she tells us, is a thing whose meaning we know innately. It need not be explained. And yet we are not practicing it.

"If we could think about kindness more, it would be a happier world. There is only one meaning to kindness, and we all know what it is."

She's talking to an audience that has made its home in a rather unkind city. We need to hear this.

I do feel we need to remember that we are standing on a hard rocky outpost without rivers or lakes, a fought after, sought after territory that survives on guts alone. No time for simple sympathies and smiles, Hong Kong is the scar tissue behind a damn professional face lift. That's my take, but in a few minutes she says it best when she tells us about the first time she wrote about Hong Kong. It was on assignment for The Guardian, and she was walking in a fish market and saw something that lingers as a reminder of what this place is all about.

"I saw live crabs for sale, tied in a clump with string, their claws working to break free. I felt sorry for them. I thought, how remarkable. How are we going to cope with this place, which is fighting nature? Before we answer that, we have to face those crabs."

Jan Morris and Simon Winchester

More later. Gotta eat breakfast at Pret-a-Manger.


the Swimmer

Monday, March 12, 2007

Gore Vidal Speaks in Hong Kong

'You've got the hottest ticket in town,' Rosemary Sayer told the audience at HKU tonight.

Indeed, a chance to sit in a small lecture hall and listen to Gore Vidal was not to be missed, knowledge reinforced by the waiting list queue outside. Those of us who had the coveted ticket sat with rapt attention as former NSW Premier Bob Carr introduced the venerable American historian/novelist/humorist/raconteur.

Carr asked mostly general questions about US politics and history, letting Vidal tell us all about which presidents were sissy (Theodore Roosevelt), which ones were creative thinkers (John Quincy Adams), and which can't read or write (Dubya).

Interviewer Carr, actually a US Civil War buff (but you wouldn't know it from his questioning), sailed a very narrow vein of questioning, which got a big agonizing, prompting the kind of answers from Gore that we could simply read in his books.

I shot my hand up at the Q&A, which must have been a familiar move in the eyes of all my old HKU English profs. I was allowed to ask him to tell us about his meeting with Gorbachev, circa 1985. Vidal proceeded to wax on for a good 10 mins about that rather amazing moment in global politics, when the last Soviet premier gathered 700 international greats in arts & letters, no politicians, no journalists, and began with, "Chernobyl scared us." He simply asked for opinions over the next few days... what should the world do now, how to approach disarmament with the US, etc, and he listened. Next thing, Gorby offered a deal to Reagan, which he accepted without hesitation as the two of them sat, nearly alone, in... what would it have been... Helsinki? It apparently took the persistence of Nancy Reagan to circumvent a gang of neocon advisers who tried to rope the Prez back to their version of reality. Kind of a revelation. I feel safe in saying that all of us present felt in on a big scoop.

Shivers were to hit me twice. In the first instance, Vidal mentioned to us all something that Gorbachev told him, in fact a statement which I had also just heard from my Jordanian taxi driver on my way to the San Francisco airport. "They're sleepwalkers in Washington."

Sit with that a moment.

Vidal concluded with a mesmerizing image of Gorbachev himself, stopping to notice, on a misty day, hundreds of Russians, just common people, pausing at points along the river's edge, staring at it flow by. "I thought," he told Vidal, "that they were like sleepwalkers. When suddenly something is so large and their reaction is, I must be dreaming."

Vidal imparted a great respect for the man who was ready to change the Soviet Union. Ever a sharp observer, he complimented Gorbachev, saying, "He just watched these Muscovites. He was a very poetic man. That image was very beautiful."

Sad that Gorby was not given a chance, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the union, to do the careful work his citizenry needed. I suppose it's blown, now, with Putin sitting pretty in the G8, implicated in the killing of journalists and whistleblowers.

* * *

On a cheerful note, I want to say how wonderful it has been to see old friends here. Hong Kong U, my alma mater, where I ran into four old professors, had a chat with each one.

Poet and teacher extraordinaire Martin Alexander was there, and he gave me the surprise of the month: a copy of the spanking new Asian Literary Review, special issue for the HK International Literary Festival, containing a story of mine, Argon.

This makes an even four of my short stories published in this journal, including its earlier incarnation, Dimsum. I was amazed and a little humbled to find my work nestled in with that of Seamus Heaney, Christine Loh, and P.K. Leung. My dear friend Nury Vittachi, who finds time to edit the journal while masterminding the vastly amusing Feng Shui Detective dynasty, seems to always surprise me with these. It's usually, "oh, didn't I tell you? I love your story and it's in this edition."

Once upon a time, I actually lived here...

Yeah, actually lived in this metropolis of highrises perched on mountainsides: the frenetic but always fascinating Fragrant Harbour: Hong Kong.

Guests of my old Hong Kong friends Roger and Sue, I slept last night in their Wah Kwai Housing Estate government flat. They are here with their two precocious kids, for what will be an annual Cantonese immersion program. They are renting the 360 square foot place from a little old lady friend of a friend. It is straight out of a chop socky flick, from the plastic armoires to the piles of amah bags suspended from the bathroom ceiling. Hong Kongers become adept at storage.

I vowed to attend the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and so will blog a bit about that, but it is always fun to be back in my old hometown, so a few words about that, first.

Oh, Bali, you have thinned my blood, marshmallowed my memory banks, but given me a smile. Hong Kongers do smile brightly if one smiles first. This is really not as dour and sober a place as I had remembered. Hong Kongers don't proffer their business cards quite as quickly as they used to, unless they are just waiting for me to do it first. And I am freeeezing here, on a simple, misty March day. I had to go and buy thermal undies from the Watson's, a windcheater from Baleno, and scarves from H & M.

I fairly gasp in wonder at the busy Aberdeen channel, the kind of thing I saw almost daily when I commuted about on ferries, 1989 - 2001. I am amazed at how much stuff I can get done in a short period of time, but I can't believe how much I have forgotten: bus routes, place names in Cantonese, etc. It is good to be back, but one reason is that I needed to be reminded of things.

Last night the festival opened at St John's Cathedral, a lovely Edwardian church in a lovely pocket of greenery in the heart of Central. I have always loved it, but I had forgotten that sparrows make their homes in the rafters, and they twittered away while the vicar welcomed us, while writers read to us, and while members of the Soho Collective sang charming songs.

Last night I

Kiran Desai

I just cannot deny thoughts of A New World Order when my thoughts go to Kiran Desai.

Anyone who thinks that she's just another lucky Indian writer who nailed another Booker because she can fool us with mango or midnight or moon or some evocation of the mysterious other, is in for a surprise. Perhaps the fashion world discovered it first, several years ago, when mixed blood models became the heighth of chic. But Desai is truly third culture, truly the burgeoning future of our little planet.

Desai did not answer questions, either from a moderator or from the audience. She read to us from a paper in which she clearly questioned 'blunt notions of east and west', the idea that colonizer and colonized are somehow diametrically opposed, singular loyalties, and even, horrors, the 'concept of home.'

I could not help but feel that she is tired of the label, the trap, the category, the border, the boundary. Here she was, at Hong Kong U, an academic institution no better or worse than a thousand others, all of which are entrenched in the increasingly unworkable act of labeling, filtering, and simply not seeing what IS.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hate to be labeled, but...

This is one of those classic internet time wasters. Read on, to learn who I supposedly am.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Northstar at Tahoe

Just want to give a rave review to Northstar, which so far rates as my favorite Tahoe ski resort.
It is like a little tiny Vail, from the low-key but snazzy wooden buildings in the village, on up to the variety of runs. And it's the quality of service that really shines in a small operation like this. I've been to some small outfits, from New York's itty bitty Scotch Valley to California's Sugar Bowl, but neither of them have the attention to detail of Northstar.

Not to knock all the nice kids from Argentina, Johannesburg, and New Zealand, who do the seasonal drudge work in ski resorts from Mammoth to Killington, but Northstar's local personnel show a real sense of esprit de corps, of proprietorship, and service. I felt cared for, every turn of the way, from the basket check dude right on up to Bob, my ski instructor.

Thanks to the Bay Area Ski Bus, I got a good deal on transport, lift ticket, ski rental, and my Intermediate Skills Improvement lesson.

The hard part is waking up at 4 am to get up and drive to the bus pickup location, but once on the bus, it was not too bad. The driver plies his way up to the Sierras, loaded to the brim with skiiers trying to get a little more sleep. We are served bagels, cream cheese, yogurt and juices as we summit highway 80 somewhere on the way THERE.

The easy part is getting handed my voucher by the hostess as we file off the bus. I get my lift ticket and skis. I go up to the top of the mountain and fly down blue runs called Sodergrens, Upper Jiboom, Christmas Tree, Pinball (also a terrain park, though I take no big jumps). There are many of them, and they're covered with crisp powder. And, midweek, many of the runs seem to be mine alone.

I don't stop for lunch, even though I hear other skiiers raving about the taco salad and burritos. I munch on a stale Balance Bar found in my jacket pocket and ski right up to the moment when my group lesson will start. In the end, I am assigned my own instructor, as we "improvers" number only as many as on-duty ski instructors.

Bob Hill is a fit 72 year old, and an excellent teacher. He identifies me as a "functional skiier," able to zoom down a hill intact, but not really doing it right. He corrects my feet, my knees, my poles, even my gosh darned chin. In a few minutes, I am completely in control, totally relaxed, and flying downhill without threat of wiping out or straining my muscles. I am amazed at the change.

So, stoked on powder at nearly 4 pm, I turn in my equipment and make my way to the bus. It's been a great day. Thanks, Bay Area Ski Bus, and Northstar!